THE WAKE OF THE NAUTILUS
A BRIEF HISTORY OF
THE WORLD’S FIRST NUCLEAR SUBMARINE
by Nick T. Spark
Part 1: “A Perfect Submarine”
Thanks to the U-boat, the Allies had almost lost World War II. In 1942, with German Wolfpacks ranging throughout the Atlantic, over 1500 Allied ships were sunk. The supply lifeline to Great Britain dangled by a thread, and it was only through incredible effort, and the emergency development of a host of new anti-submarine warfare technologies, that the tide was turned. At the same time in the Pacific, American submarines – which represented a mere 1.6 percent of the manpower of the U.S. Navy – sank over 55% of the Japanese ships accounted for in the war. They crippled Japan’s ability to supply its armies, and deprived the home islands of vital raw materials. Thus the submarine emerged from WWII as a super weapon, and one which strategists believed would play a key role in future conflicts.
As powerful as they were, WWII era diesel submarines had an Achilles’ heel. They often had to surface, and on the surface a submarine was nearly defenseless. A submarine would have to surface for two reasons. First, it might have to replenish its internal air supply which, while sizeable, was not inexhaustible. Second, submarines often needed to operate their air-breathing diesel engines in order to recharge their batteries, which were used as a power source for underwater maneuvering. The battery propulsion system also produced another vulnerability, in that it could not produce much horsepower for sustained periods of time. Thus, the submarine’s ability to maneuver was limited by design at the most critical moments – just before and after an underwater attack.
Naval architects had long dreamed of creating a more advanced weapon; the type of submarine envisioned by Jules Verne in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Verne’s underwater craft, the Nautilus, was entirely self-contained, could stay underwater for months, and literally flew through the ocean. It was truly a “perfect submarine”. That concept, it appeared to most, would always remain a fantasy. But not to all.
In 1939, Dr. George Pegram of Columbia University met with Navy Admiral Harold Bowen to discuss a unique research project, one which Pegram felt could harness the power of uranium fission – a process discovered only a year earlier by German researchers. Fission did not require oxygen but nevertheless produced a great deal of heat, which in turn could be used to heat water into steam for propulsion. A ship or submarine equipped with a uranium reactor, Pegram insisted, would have nearly unlimited power and range. And a nuclear submarine, Pegram felt, would rarely if ever have to surface.
It was an intriguing proposition, and eventually Admiral Bowen authorized Pegram, Dr. Enrico Fermi, the world’s leading expert on neutrons, and Dr. Philip Abelson of the Carnegie Institution to begin work on a “fission chamber.” The work commenced, but was then interrupted by the onset of WWII and the formation of the Manhattan District. For the next four years, America would devote its energies to making an atomic bomb, not a nuclear reactor.
By the end of the war, the fission chamber concept had been all but abandoned by the Navy. Nevertheless in 1946, a small group of military personnel were dispatched to participate in the construction of an experimental nuclear power pile at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Among those sent was Captain Hyman G. Rickover, a twenty-five year Navy veteran who had spent the war overseeing the construction and development of critical materiel. A former submariner who had also served in the surface fleet, Rickover had a masters degree in engineering and a fair, but unexceptional, record as an officer. The one thing “Rick” was really well known for, was that he had developed a reputation as a single-minded manager, one obsessed with innovation, efficiency, and performance. He was the kind of person some might call a martinet, while others admired his resourcefulness, dedication and leadership. Here was a man who could get things done, despite red tape, and who would not take “no” for an answer.
Prior to departing for Oak Ridge, Rickover read all the documents affiliated with the aborted reactor program, and read an extensive paper by Dr. Abelson suggesting the potential value of and design for a nuclear submarine. He quickly became convinced that developing a nuclear reactor program was vital, and that developing a nuclear submarine was not only feasible, but absolutely necessary for national security. It was a goal that would soon become his life’s mission.
The man who eventually became known as the “Father of the Nuclear Navy” almost didn’t get his chance. Shortly after he joined the Oak Ridge Project, it was disbanded. It had been poorly managed, and the head of the Navy reactor program, Captain Albert Mumma, was poorly versed in nuclear theory. Mumma’s lack of enthusiasm convinced the Navy that shipboard reactors would not be feasible in the near future, and in a time of diminishing budgets the concept was dismissed as “Buck Rogers stuff.” Rickover, however, remained undaunted. He secretly reformed his working group and lobbied Naval brass, the Chief of Naval Operations Chester Nimitz, and scientist Edward Teller (the “father of the H-bomb”) for support. After a great deal of effort he got it. Mumma’s authority was dissolved, and Rickover was able to transform his informal group into the Navy Nuclear Power Branch. Then in 1951, he and the Truman administration persuaded Congress to authorize construction of a nuclear powered submarine. In a classic move that even Machiavelli would have admired, Rickover then got himself appointed as head of the nation’s only other reactor development group (at the Atomic Energy Commission). As a result, he would often draft letters to himself to report on his own progress. “Super efficient administrators,” he once said, explaining why he felt such a move was necessary, “are the curse of this country. Their main function is to waste as much time as possible.”
Rickover intended to move with all possible speed, and he launched a massive, two-pronged effort: to develop the world’s first working nuclear reactor, and to construct a new type of submarine to carry it. He was confident that he could achieve both goals in five years, something which even to optimists sounded ludicrous. The way to do it, Rickover told his staff, was to throw conventional thinking out the window, and to try to anticipate problems before they occurred. To do that he assembled a team of loyal experts, and set out to micro-manage the vast project from the top. He developed a new and sophisticated reporting system, in which any kind of delay or setback was rapidly brought to his attention. These failures would quickly bring the wrath of the “old man”, and a torturous reassessment of procedures. (Once when an engineer insisted that it wasn’t possible to deliver a component on schedule, Rickover asked him, “What time do you get up in the morning?” When the man replied “7:00”, Rickover snapped back, “Well, try getting up at six!”)
Yet while speed was of great necessity – Rickover believed national security hung in the balance – he refused to compromise in any way on the end product. It would have to be perfect, all the more so because it would be the first of many hundreds of nuclear vessels and power plants. Safety had to take a top priority where nuclear technology was concerned, and the testing of key nuclear components and the design of fail-safe devices to shut down the reactor in the event of an emergency took top priority.
The management style of Captain Rickover may have left contractors with hard feelings – someone once said he “cursed, flailed and coerced people to perform” – but it also produced a great many enemies and detractors within the Navy itself. Some doubtlessly questioned the whole notion of nuclear power and the vast investment in it while the Navy was suffering budget cuts. Others could not rationalize (or tolerate) the Captain’s rapid ascent, undaunted ambition, or tenacious grip on authority. The resentments were eventually exposed publicly. Twice during the development program, Rickover was considered for promotion by a Navy panel, and twice he was passed over. If it happened a third time, he would be forced into automatic retirement. Rickover had to watch his back, while simultaneously trying to run a $55 million dollar effort – the most complex development program since the Manhattan Project.
Constructing a reactor ended up taking three years, although it might have taken ten had it not been for Rickover’s dedication and foresight. Westinghouse had initially proposed to build an “exploded” reactor for testing purposes which would be over a city block in size. Rickover adamantly demanded that they instead build a fake submarine hull, and to make sure that the entire reactor fit inside it. He also then insisted that a second reactor be assembled simultaneously so that if the prototype worked, the other unit could be quickly put to sea. These were typical “Rickoverisms”. Time after time he insisted on what most engineers felt was either unreasonable or impossible, and time after time they were able to deliver. Thus, despite the nay sayers, the program remained on schedule.
When at last in June, 1953 the demonstration reactor inside the fake submarine hull reached criticality, Rickover was triumphant. Not only that, he was incredibly confident in what he had achieved. Against the advice of his staff, he ordered engineers to keep the untested power plant at full power until there was a mechanical failure. Sixty hours later, when the reactor automatically shut itself down due to a broken water pump, the attention of the nation had been seized and Rickover’s critics silenced. The world had just entered the age of sustainable nuclear power.
The success came just in the nick of time: Rickover had just been passed over for promotion for a third and final time, and would now be forced by Navy regulations to retire. It was an outrageous coincidence, and when the media got hold of the story, it became a genuine controversy. Why, newspapers asked, would the Navy sabotage one of its most important programs and retire its hardest-working officer? “For a nation to slough off such men is more than ungrateful and shortsighted,” an editorial in the Milwaukee Journal read, “In the light of even recent history it becomes stupid.” Congress rapidly became involved in the squabble, and rescued Rickover. Soon he was promoted to Rear Admiral and given indefinite job security – the only officer ever to receive such treatment.
Part 2: “Unlike Any Submarine the World Has Seen”
While the reactor program made great strides, an entirely new type of submarine was emerging at Electric Boat in Groton, Connecticut. Normally such a radically new type of vessel would be considered experimental, but Rickover intended from the get-go to send a message to the Soviet Union. By now, that nation had made its intention to challenge the American Navy for supremacy quite clear. (In the coming years it would go on to develop the largest submarine fleet in history; they would launch their own nuclear powered submarine in 1958.)
When President Truman attended the keel laying ceremony for the Nautilus, as the new submarine would be named, he called its reactor a “working power plant for peace.” But Nautilus would also be a ship of war, carrying a full complement of torpedoes. And, Rickover made clear, nuclear submarines would soon be capable of carrying nuclear missiles, something which would make them power projection tools and, more than that, powerful deterrents to Soviet aggression. That, more than any other single fact, made the development of this technology urgent.
Nautilus was unlike any submarine the world had ever seen. She was truly ground-breaking. Supplied with unlimited power from her reactor, Nautilus could distill its own drinking water from the sea, recycle its air supply through a carbon dioxide scrubbing system, and keep its crew generally comfortable via an air conditioning system. This was no “pig boat” where no one could take a shower for months on end. Amenities included an ice cream machine, a clothes washer and even a television set. This was a boat capable of fulfilling Jules Verne’s dream of a “perfect submarine.” Like Vernes’ namesake vessel, Nautilus would be able to make high speed underwater, would never have to surface to replenish its air supply or batteries, It could travel for years without refueling. The capabilities of such a craft were remarkable, and its potential seemingly unlimited. “The military significance of this vessel is tremendous,” Truman noted at the keel laying ceremony. “It will have as revolutionary an effect on the navies of the world as the first ocean steam ship 120 years ago.”
No wonder then that Rickover envisioned the crew of the Nautilus to be more like astronauts than traditional submariners. They would maintain and pilot a self-contained craft on long and difficult missions, and not see the sunlight for months on end. Some questioned what the human impact of this might be. To ensure their fitness, Rickover would personally select officers for Nautilus through a grueling and sometimes humiliating interview process which became notorious. (Rickover had a special chair made for interviewees with one leg shorter than the others, and put it next to a window through which blinding light streamed. The goal was to test candidates under stress!) Commander Eugene P. Wilkinson, who was eventually selected to become the sub’s first captain, was a WWII submariner with combat experience, extensive knowledge of nuclear theory, and a former math professor. He was cool and calculating under fire. To ensure crews could be relied upon as well, Rickover commissioned a series of experiments. Submarine crews were placed in long-term isolation aboard docked ships to see if they could endure both physically and mentally. The results were encouraging. (Psychiatrists would routinely deploy aboard nuclear submarines in the 1950’s and 60’s to continue monitoring and research in this area.)
Six years after the reactor program had been initiated, and a little over two years since construction began on its hull, the Nautilus pulled away from the Thames River off Groton, Connecticut, and signaled that she was “Underway on Nuclear Power.” It was a red-letter day in American history, and thanks to one man’s efforts it had happened a mere sixteen days off the original schedule. The newly minted Rear Admiral might have been satisfied with his accomplishment, but if he was he barely acknowledged it. He knew Nautilus was just the beginning -a chance to show the world what could be done. Now the stage was set for it to do truly remarkable things.
And it did. In May of 1955, Nautilus shattered all records, cruising from New London to San Juan, Puerto Rico (about 1400 miles) in ninety hours. She had traveled at sixteen knots, and cruised the entire distance submerged. The previous record for submerged travel was less than a tenth of that distance. But the mighty craft was just cutting her teeth. During a voyage in 1957, she traveled from the New London to San Diego and only surfaced once – to transit the Panama Canal. It was an astonishing feat, and one that signaled to the world that America remained at the forefront of world technological innovation.
In the years to come, Nautilus would perform many firsts, and take its crew to places where no man had been before – including the top of the world. In doing so, it would help inspire a nation and reshape the tactics of the Cold War.
Part 3: “Nautilus 90 North”
From the time it had been launched in 1955, the nuclear powered submarine Nautilus seized the world’s imagination. A perfect vessel for the exploration of inner space, Nautilus set a host of records for submerged travel and speed. Her crew were national heroes, and the man who had constructed her, Rear Admiral Rickover, had already become something of a legend. The world’s first nuclear powered vessel had demonstrated the atom’s potential to serve man in peaceful ways. In the future it was envisioned that nuclear powered cargo ships like the Savannah would ply the world’s oceans, that nuclear powered aircraft would fly around the world, and that nuclear power plants would light the world’s cities. If it was the honeymoon of the atomic era, then Nautilus was in many ways the blushing bride.
Yet as President Truman noted at her keel laying, Nautilus was not merely a ship of peace. Armed with deadly torpedoes, she was a capable warship, the first of a fleet of nuclear attack submarines. And on the drawing boards were a fleet of nuclear powered, missile firing submarines which, when they were deployed, would provide America with a defensive missile shield that was nearly invulnerable to attack. Defense strategists believed this type of submarine could help ensure America’s security and defuse an arms race with the Soviets which, by the mid-1950’s, was already spiraling out of control. The so-called “Cold War” was heating up.
While they had not yet launched a nuclear submarine of their own, the Soviets had begun flexing their sizeable military and technological muscles in other areas. The Soviets had aggressively laid claim to Eastern Europe, and laid siege to the Free World on many fronts including Korea. In a bid to attain naval supremacy, the USSR began constructing a fleet of submarines which would eventually become the largest in the world. And the Soviets began pioneering work on a missile program which would culminate in August of 1957 with the successful test of the world’s first ICBM. In October of that same year they stunned the world with the launch of Sputnik, the first satellite. The twin Russian triumphs were viewed as setbacks for the United States, and made many question whether America truly had technological supremacy over its rival.
While the Eisenhower administration worked to contain Soviet power and bolster domestic morale, the U.S. Navy tried to formulate a broad response to the present and future threat. Slowly, interest began to build in an area of the world few had ever considered strategically important – the polar ice cap. Stretching for thousands of miles across the top of the world, the icy North Pole region constituted a vast running border between the Soviet Union and North America. If in the future missile submarines could enter the polar region, they could likely hide there, virtually undetectable and within striking range of either the U.S. or the USSR. Therefore this desolate and unexplored expanse, planners surmised, could very well be a key battleground of any future conflict.
The idea of traveling under the ice cap in a submarine was not a new idea, and in fact it had been attempted several times. In 1931 explorer Sir Hubert Wilkins – in a submarine named Nautilus no less! – skirted the artic ice but failed to dive beneath the ice pack. Two other attempts by the American submarines USS Redfish and USS Boarfish had some limited success, and produced one item which was to later prove invaluable – an inverted fathometer developed by Dr. Waldo Lyon which allowed a submerged submarine to measure the distance between itself and overhead ice. (A normal fathometer provided readings of depth between the submarine and the sea floor). The limits of battery propulsion, the danger of a collision with the ice, and the fact that surfacing to recharge batteries and replenish air supplies or take directional bearings was unlikely in polar regions, meant that far-ranging surveys by diesel submarines were considered to be very risky at best. (USS Redfish sailed for nine hours and a distance of twenty miles under the ice pack in 1952. Both figures represented records for diesel boats. Yet the ice pack was hundreds of times greater in size.)
Nautilus, however, represented an entirely new type of vessel. Since she could stay underwater indefinitely, and could produce her own supply of oxygen and drinking water, she was better suited for the trip than any other vessel ever constructed. Yet navigating the polar region, even in a vessel like Nautilus, could obviously be extremely dangerous. If it was to be done, and Naval planners believed it was rapidly becoming a strategic necessity, then huge hurdles would have to be overcome.
Among the first would be political opposition. The idea of risking the only atomic submarine in commission on an attempt to reach the North Pole was seen by some as reckless. If the attempt failed, or worse yet the submarine was lost, the ramifications would be tremendous and American prestige forever damaged. If it succeeded, the effect on American morale and strategic position would also be incalculable – a fact not lost on President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
On June 18, 1957 Commander William R. Anderson relieved the first skipper of the Nautilus, Eugene Wilkinson. Anderson, a Tennessee native and Annapolis graduate who had spent WWII aboard submarines, had been personally selected by Rickover for the job. By the time he joined the submarine, he had been studying the problem of operations in the Arctic for nearly a year. It was a task that had kept him extremely busy, as information about the polar regions was scarce. Just how thick is the ice, and how deep is the water beneath it? were just two of a large number of seemingly unanswerable questions. What route should a submarine take in an attempt to reach the North Pole from the Pacific and, beyond it, the Atlantic Ocean? How could the route be tracked, and position data obtained, in a region of the world where magnetic compasses are untrustworthy, and where periscope sextant readings cannot be obtained because of the impenetrable overhead ice pack?
In the spring of 1957, the Commander of the Atlantic Submarine Force backed Anderson in a cautious first attempt at the pole. It would be a classified mission, with the crew itself not even fully aware of the goal. In port, Nautilus was equipped with emergency arctic survival gear, charts of the northern Atlantic, five inverted fathometers, and a new set of gyro compasses. While the gyro compasses were more stable than magnetic compasses near the Pole, they too were considered unreliable in the far North. Should Nautilus run aground, or lose its bearings, the result could be disastrous.
In early August Anderson, Dr. Lyon and Lt. Commander Robert McWethy, who had commanded Redfish, flew over the arctic to chart ice formations. What they saw was discouraging: the sea was covered with thick pack ice, and gigantic bergs weighing millions of tons. On September 1, Nautilus and its escort, USS Trigger, arrived at the edge of the Atlantic ice pack. Although plagued by minor equipment failures, including a malfunctioning CO2 scrubber, Anderson proceeded under the ice pack. Operations were fairly routine until the Commander decided to surface the submarine at a so-called “Pollyanna” – a break in the ice pack. When the boat surfaced, it struck a rogue block of solid ice and came to a dead stop. The #2 periscope was destroyed, and the #1 periscope badly damaged by the collision. An emergency repair job put it back in working order, but no sooner was Nautilus underway again when the limitations of the gyro compasses became clear, as they showed erratic readings. For seven hours the crew had no idea which direction they were actually heading, except by guesswork.
Eventually, Nautilus emerged from the ice pack near Greenland. She had been submerged for more than 70 hours and covered nearly 1000 miles. Yet the limitations and hazards of undersea exploration in the North was clearly revealed. What’s more, when data from Dr. Lyon’s fathometers was collected, a disturbing fact was revealed. Nautilus had traveled at much greater speed than the instruments were calibrated for. As a result, the picture of the ice sheet which the crew saw was inaccurate. Such an error could have had grave consequences.
After returning to New London, Nautilus was modified with a steel cap on its conning tower to protect its periscopes in the event of another ice collision. A crucial, top secret device was also placed on the submarine: an inertial navigator. This intricate device, developed at M.I.T. and then just becoming widely available, used high speed gyroscopes to track the movements of a ship (or a missile, for that matter) to provide highly accurate position data. With inertial navigation on board, Nautilus would know where she was at all times.
But before another polar attempt was made, Nautilus made a transit to the Pacific. This was a two month cruise which would culminate, according to the press releases, in a return through the Panama Canal. Actually, Nautilus intended to return via the Arctic Ocean. The cruise began well, but off the Pacific Coast of Panama disaster struck. A fire broke out in the engine room. The source was an oil-soaked liner in a turbine, and it was quickly brought under control. The submarine was forced to surface under duress for the first time in its career to clear the smoke cloud. The incident shook up the normally calm Anderson, for he realized that had the fire erupted in the arctic, it would have been difficult if not impossible to surface the boat. That could prove fatal.
Another problem which rattled Anderson was that one of the submarine’s steam condensers, a vital part of the nuclear propulsion system, developed a severe leak which could not be easily located or repaired. After several attempts failed, Anderson ordered his crew to purchase cans of “Bar’s Leaks”, a commercial radiator leak product made for automobiles. Incredibly, 140 quarts of Bar’s Leaks did the trick, repairing the $20 million submarine.
In June of 1958, after an aerial scout of the ice packs, Nautilus headed through the Bering Straits, close to the Soviet border, and passed into the Arctic Circle. Traveling beneath ice floes that were over sixty feet thick, the boat barely had room to pass over the ocean floor. Finally, the fathometers indicated there was only five feet of clearance between the sail of the submarine and the ice sheets. Once again, Nautilus had to turn back.
About a month would elapse before another attempt could be made. In the intervening time, Nautilus was equipped with a new weapon: a watertight television camera. The camera would allow the crew to see the ice sheet above them, and easily find Pollyannas. Prior to the third attempt, Anderson dispatched Lt. Shepherd M. Jenks to conduct a complete aerial survey of the Pacific approach to the North Pole. Armed with Jenks’ very current information, Nautilus departed Pearl Harbor in July of 1958 for what was now being called “Operation Sunshine.” Once at sea, Anderson informed the crew that their destination was Portland, England via the North Pole. From that moment onward, the atmosphere in the submarine was nothing short of electric.
The most difficult portion of the journey, Anderson knew from the last attempt, would be the initial step, trying to pass through a shallow barrier at the edge of the ice pack. The first encounter with this barrier was promising, as the ice was no where near as threatening as it had been during the previous attempt. But secondary contact with the ice pack revealed bergs as thick as 120 feet, and once again Anderson and his submarine had to skirt them. As if this wasn’t aggravating enough, a short circuit developed in the submarine which threatened to cause a fire. Fortunately, the entire complement now had emergency breathing gear (a precaution taken after the first episode), and the short circuit was dealt with before a fire could start.
After a good deal of probing, Nautilus managed to thread the barrier and entered deep water beneath the polar cap. It appeared the door to the North Pole was open, although no one could guess what conditions might be like on the other side. Meantime the submarine sailed north, simultaneously mapping the underside of the ice and the sea floor. Anderson could not sleep, and as the Pole loomed closer and closer, neither could the crew. They had been underwater for 62 hours when Anderson got on the ship’s address system and announced, “In a few moments the Nautilus will realize a goal long a dream of mankind – the attainment by ship of the North Geographic Pole.” Nautilus had done it, and although it could not report it immediately due to the overhead ice, the message which was eventually sent back to Washington said it all: “August 3 1958 Nautilus 90 North”.
There was a celebration aboard the submarine, and a visit from “St. Nick.” But the voyage was not yet complete. The submarine now continued with its attempt to make a transpolar voyage from Pacific to Atlantic. It turned out to be uneventful, and aside from a few apprehensive moments exiting the ice pack, Nautilus came through with flying colors. Once the White House was informed of Anderson and his crew’s success, a simple telegram reached them: “Congratulations on a magnificent achievement.” It came directly from the White House.
The excitement that gripped America and the world in the wake of Nautilus‘ accomplishment was tremendous. Anderson was flown to Washington before the submarine reached England so that he could be personally congratulated by Eisenhower, and the boat received the Presidential Unit Citation. The feat was a major political victory for the embattled President, especially after the Sputnik public relations disaster.
When the Nautilus returned to New York City, the crew received a hero’s welcome. Rear Admiral Rickover attended the ceremony, and was presented with a piece of ice from the Arctic Ocean. It was a fitting gift for the feisty man who had brought the United States into the atomic era, and the Admiral accepted it cheerfully. For once, the up-tight taskmaster of the atomic program seemed to bask in the glory of his accomplishment.
The impact of the Nautilus‘ voyage would be manifold. Yet many of the bold predictions of that era, when atomic power was in its apogee, never came to pass. Nuclear powered cargo submarines have yet to cruise the oceans of the world, and once the nuclear powered Savannah was retired from service, no other atomic cargo vessels were ever built. Many nuclear reactors were constructed for power generation but the costs, both environmental and economic, came into question in later years. Some would argue that had Rickover been directly involved in the domestic nuclear power industry, disasters like Three Mile Island would never have happened. But they did, and today the only new reactors built in the United States are for military use.
Yet there were gigantic, positive outcomes. The construction of Nautilus and its voyages certainly added a great deal of information to the scientific record. New technologies and products emerged as a result of the reactor research program, and innovations such as inertial guidance eventually became standard for navigation at sea. More than that, an entire world beneath the ice was opened to scientific study, and millions of people the world over were inspired by its achievement – including children who went on to careers in science in technology.
More important perhaps, was the political and military impact of Nautilus‘ and its journey. The submarine had opened the door to the arctic frontier as a staging area for submarine operations, and it would never been closed again. American and Russian submarines would prowl its frigid waters for the remainder of the Cold War. Among those making the journey would be the Polaris nuclear ballistic missile submarines, which could cruise near the ice cap, their missiles theoretically targeted at the USSR. Developed jointly by Admiral “Red” Raborn and Rickover, the nuclear Polaris boats more than any other weapon in the U.S arsenal provided a massive deterrent to Soviet nuclear aggression.
The Polaris submarines deployed beginning in 1960, and several were operational by the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Had they and the Regulus missile boats not been on duty, some historians believe, the outcome of the crisis might have been different. That was how significant a deterrent they were – and the reason why Rickover had worked like a whirling dervish to see that the Navy developed them. Had he not worked a miracle and delivered Nautilus in a mere six years, and had its crew not proven the submarine’s capabilities as quickly as they did, history might have taken on an altogether different, perhaps even an unimaginable complexion.
There is an extremely interesting side note concerning the Nautilus and its polar journey, one not revealed until recently. Newly declassified documents and the testimony of a former Navy engineer has revealed that despite the diligent efforts of Rickover and his staff, Nautilus carried a design flaw which could have resulted in tragedy, one which remained undiscovered until nearly a year after the polar journey. Had the flaw remained undetected, the submarine might have been unable to surface. If that had occurred in the arctic, the loss might have been total. The impact on the Navy, Admiral Rickover and history would have been incalculable, but fortunately nothing happened, and the flaw was fixed in drydock.
Nautilus continued under commission until 1979. By that time she had traveled nearly half a million miles. Designated a national landmark, she is now on display at the Submarine Force Museum in Groton, Connecticut, a lasting monument to her courageous crew and the bold visionaries who made her a reality.